August 17, 2018

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Opinion

Battle between the pipes heats up in Game 2

Winnipeg Jets' Adam Lowry and Vegas Golden Knights' Deryk Engelland battle in front of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury during the second period of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals in Winnipeg, Monday.

THE CANADIAN PRESS / TREVOR HAGAN

Winnipeg Jets' Adam Lowry and Vegas Golden Knights' Deryk Engelland battle in front of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury during the second period of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals in Winnipeg, Monday.

Hockey is a team game, for sure.

But it’s also a fact that the goaltender is the most important position on the ice and, on most nights, you’re going to win if your guy simply outplays the other team’s guy.

On most nights this season, that better man has been Winnipeg Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck.

And that’s been particularly true in these playoffs.

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Hockey is a team game, for sure.

But it’s also a fact that the goaltender is the most important position on the ice and, on most nights, you’re going to win if your guy simply outplays the other team’s guy.

On most nights this season, that better man has been Winnipeg Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck.

And that’s been particularly true in these playoffs.

Hellebuyck outplayed Devan Dubnyk — a pretty good goalie in his own right — in four out of five games in the opening round of the playoffs between the Jets and Minnesota Wild.

And then Hellebuyck ate the lunch of Nashville’s Pekka Rinne in the second round of the playoffs. The Predators' Rinne will still probably win the Vezina, but only because the voting for that trophy ended with the regular season.

Hold that vote today and Hellebuyck wins in a landslide.

And then in Game 1 of the Western Conference final, it was Hellebuyck again who got the better of the Vegas Golden Knights and their netminder, Marc-Andre Fleury, in a 4-2 Jets win.

Put it all together and the Jets story these playoffs has been the same as the Jets story all season long — as Hellebuyck goes, so go the Jets.

All of which brings us around to Game 2 against the Knights and a 3-1 Vegas win at Bell MTS Place Monday night that ties the series 1-1 heading into Game 3 in Vegas Wednesday night.

On a night Hellebuyck was workmanlike, Fleury was almost unbeatable and a Knights team that got out-classed in Game 1 Saturday night suddenly have new life courtesy of the hot hand of their three-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender.

"There were about 57 minutes of that game that was pretty good for us," Jets captain Blake Wheeler offered at night’s end. "Three minutes of it got away from us. They could have scored four goals in three minutes."

Vegas Golden Knights’ Jonathan Marchessault  scores on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck during the third period, Monday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Vegas Golden Knights’ Jonathan Marchessault scores on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck during the third period, Monday.

Hellebuyck wasn’t bad by any measure on this night. Indeed, for those three minutes you could argue the Jets netminder was the least of Winnipeg’s problems.

Still, when you’ve set as high a bar as Hellebuyck has this season, it can seem like he should be able to stop every shot, even those in which his teammates had abandoned him and he was left one-on-one with Tomas Tatar at the side of the net midway through the first period and then, a couple minutes later, left alone again with Jonathan Marchessault, who was in on a breakaway.

Tatar won the battle against Hellebuyck and so did Marchessault and a 2-0 Vegas lead heading into the first intermission seemed to suck all the life out of both the Jets and their whiteout.

A power-play goal by Kyle Connor midway through the third period cut the Vegas lead in half and gave the Jets renewed life — for all of 88 seconds before Marchessault got in alone again and beat Hellebuyck again.

The rest of the night wasn’t pretty, which is to say it was exactly the kind of game that Vegas loves to play and the kind the Jets tend to lose.

The Jets are bigger, faster and infinitely more talented than the Knights. But the name of the game is putting the puck in the other team’s net and when Fleury is playing like he did Monday night, well, it looks uncomfortably familiar to Jets fans, who’ve seen Hellebuyck put on the same kind of show-stopping performance night after night this season.

Fleury was Hellebuyck-ian, making 30 saves — at least a half dozen of which were the jaw-dropping sort that have the tendency to break the will of your opponent.

It’s difficult to overstate how big of a win this was for Vegas — and what a missed chance it was for the Jets.

Teams that take a 2-0 series lead in a conference final in the NHL have gone on to win the series 95.1 percent of the time, which is to say the Jets could have basically booked their ticket to the Stanley Cup final with a win Monday night.

But Fleury had different ideas, Vegas escaped town with a split and now it’s the Jets who will have to win at least one on The Strip if they’re going to keep this city’s — and country’s — Stanley Cup dream alive.

In a Jets season that has been all about Hellebuyck all the time, the nightmare scenario now is that this series suddenly becomes all about an emboldened Fleury.

There is no greater equalizer in hockey than a hot goaltender and its the Knights who have the hotter one heading back to the desert.

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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